What's the going rate for a brain picking?
Venture and angel investors, high-level executives, industry experts, and other well-connected individuals get inundated with requests to have their brains picked for the price of a latte. While we know there is a secret key to unlock the door to that in-person powwow, there are just as many hopefuls trying to wrestle a 15-minute call with a busy influencer because they live in another state—or halfway across the world.
"Cold calling used to work 10 years ago," Mukund Mohan tells Fast Company. Now on the advisory committee of Microsoft Ventures Accelerator, Mohan can remember when he was a hungry entrepreneur dialing up investors at such esteemed firms as ICGE, Mayfield, Bessemer while standing outside of Disneyland. "This was before we had cell coverage everywhere," Mohan explains, and before people didn’t think twice about taking a call from someone they had never met. That time at the happiest place on Earth, Mohan got lucky scoring face time and eventually funding for his startup. Now, he says, "People don’t like to talk to people until they’ve got some level of validation."
You Can’t Live By Keywords and Hashtags Alone
"I think it is a terrible idea to take [or offer] money after just one phone call," explains Mark Suster. The veteran of two startups who is now a partner at Upfront Ventures Suster believes a phone call can be a place to start a relationship. "Raising money is more difficult than marriage," he says, "There’s no such thing as divorce with investment, and bad investors can be destructive." So get off your butt and go do some homework.
"I get tweets all the time from people who say they would love to chat," says Suster, "That's lazy." Ditto for sending a LinkedIn request with a note, likely when a profile gets recommended by an algorithm. Simply scouring social network profiles for keywords or hashtags, then leaving a boilerplate voice mail won’t do the trick. Suster advises researching who you want to meet, winnowing investors (or potential mentors) by the types of companies they’ve already worked with. "It’s very public information," he says, "And your probability [of making a good connection] goes up 100 times."
The Power of Second-Degree Connections
Unlike a lot of the venture firms in Silicon Valley, Artiman Ventures invests in health care and construction, among others that are typically located far from the tech hub of the Bay Area. Partner Tim Wilson is currently working on finalizing a deal with a company he first connected with over the phone.
The reason Wilson took the call? A second-degree connection. "I want to have my network help with introductions," says Wilson, so he’s likely to take a call from someone he hasn’t met if they’ve been recommended by someone in his circle —even if he hasn’t worked with them, either. Though there are no guarantees he’ll ultimately get on the phone, Wilson says he will take the time to look at the bio of the person making the referral to make sure they are legitimately connected and get an executive summary to see if the space the company is trying to break into is of interest.
It should be even easier to get an introduction through LinkedIn, Mohan contends. He’s got 19,400 connections. "I just accept because I don’t know what else to do," Mohan confesses, even though he estimates only 10% of those are people he’d be willing to work with. "It amazes me why its not 50%, because this is easy," he explains. Scouring shared connections should yield at least two people who could advance your cause.
Get to The Point
Once an introduction is made, it’s time to get ready for your close-up. Suster suggests opening on common ground such as a university association —simple if you’ve done your research. Take the temperature of that banter quickly, in order to be respectful of that person’s time, he says.
Wilson equates the first call to flirting, "It’s really important for that bonding to happen." Except in this case, it should be over the essence of the idea. "If they can communicate that remotely, it’s a skill," he says. Slide decks don’t hold sway over the phone, neither do good looks. "One aspect can be a great voice," says Wilson, "But it doesn’t matter too much, if they are clear, consistent, and credible."
Appearances are mattering less on Skype, too, even though visuals overtake voices on virtual calls. Having nearly 100 conversations on Skype during each selection cycle has made Mohan wise to the ways of "nice" answers. Instead, he’s challenged entrepreneurs to think on their feet with questions that are specific to their business model. "I’m looking for a framework on how you think because the answers are very situational," he explains. In other words, be able to show how you’d solve potential pitfalls, not provide the actual solution.
Then Get to The Second Meeting
"When it's purely business—as in we have no other point of contact other than vetting an idea — typically the exchange of value is ideas/advice for cash," Whitney Johnson tells Fast Company. Author of Dare-Dream-Do and venture capitalist, "The best way to make a good impression [during a cold call] is to recognize that there is an exchange of value taking place. As an entrepreneur, you are asking for advice, expertise, a connection. So then specifically ask: ‘What can I do to help you?’ "
Finally, says Wilson, it’s important to remember, "A positive outcome is not investment; it’s to get a second meeting." So don’t forget to follow up and say thanks.
[Image: Flickr user Martin Cathrae]